Nazi and Confederate imagery present during Oct. 15 protest of ‘Halloween Drag Story Hour’ in Jonesboro Heights; pastor calls for commissioners to enforce ‘adult entertainment’ laws
By Billy Liggett and Richard Sullins
A local pastor’s public protest of a “drag story hour” in the Jonesboro Heights area last weekend carried over into the Lee County Board of Commissioners’ meeting on Monday as his group formally asked the county to consider a ban on future drag events that propose to allow children to attend.
Thomas F. Booher, pastor of the Heritage Reformed Presbyterian Church — which meets in the fellowship hall of Swann Station Baptist Church on N.C. 87 south of Carolina Trace, just over the Harnett County line — was front and center of a small group that protested the Halloween Drag Story Hour” hosted by Sanford Yoga & Community Center in Jonesboro Heights on Oct. 15. Booher, donning a shirt and tie while carrying a Bible and portable microphone and small speaker, was flanked by a handful of masked protesters, one draped in a Confederate flag and another wearing a Neo-Nazi shirt that read, “Support Your Local Einsatzkommando,” referring to WWII Nazi killing squads responsible for the systematic murder of tens of thousands of Jews and Polish citizens.
The 38-minute protest, which Heritage Church shared a video of on its Youtube page that day, included a short sermon by Booher, followed by short statements from other protesters with a megaphone, and ended with video of officers from Sanford Police Department telling the group to leave because they lacked proper permits for their protest.
The next day, Booher was joined by his father, Thomas C. Booher, and Deborah Matthews of Sanford to speak during the public comment portion of the county commissioners meeting.
“Places of adult entertainment hosting drag shows or drag story hour for children should not be allowed a place in our community,” the elder Booher said to the board. “But sadly, Sanford is witness to those who are doing precisely that.”
Pictures posted by Sanford Yoga & Community Center — which doubles as a local LGBTQ+ resource center — show a small Halloween-themed event with drag performers dressed as characters like Ahsoka from Star Wars and Ursula from The Little Mermaid. Books on display included titles like Gustavo The Shy Ghost, Creepy Carrots! and Calvin, a book about a child “who has always been a boy, even if the world sees him as a girl.”
Event organizer Lindsey Knapp, who launched the yoga center with husband Mike Knapp in 2020, called the event “harmless” and expressed concern with groups like the one on Oct. 15 who suggest these events sexualize, assault or harm children in any way.
“They attempt to dehumanize the LGBTQ+ population by calling them ‘sexual predators.’ It lays the groundwork to marginalize and justify violence after we’ve fought so hard to simply exist,” she said.
Oct. 15 wasn’t Knapp’s first run-in with protests. Nearly one year ago, on Oct. 30, 2022, about 16 members of the far-right, neo-fascist, white nationalist group the Proud Boys marched and protested outside of Hugger Mugger Brewing in downtown Sanford when it hosted a benefit Halloween Drag Brunch. The protest featured far more masked men, many bearing the “Proud Boys” name and symbols representing the group, shouted “groomers” and other remarks at attendees as they entered the event. Others held protest signs decrying “state-sponsored pedophilia.” Several protesters blocked the entrance of the brewery before being asked to clear the way by local police. One protester wore a hat that read, “Shoot Your Local Pedophile.”
The latest protest was smaller in numbers, but featured similar imagery. One of the masked participants appeared to be a child.
Asked why she continues to advertise and host drag events with the specter of protest and confrontation always looming, Knapp said she wants to continue to provide a safespace for a community that needs it.
“There are so many queer people in Sanford and Lee County, and they just don’t feel safe to be out,” she said. “We need to hold events and provide resources to show they’re safe, supported and feel loved. This community deserves to exist and live in a place free from harassment and discrimination and receive the same treatment as everyone else.”
As for the story hour, she called the event harmless.
“It was a drag performer in a room reading stories. This particular one was Halloween themed, and maybe some of the stories were arguably a little spooky, but they were not terrifying in any way. Parents were there. We made friendship bracelets, we told stories and we played games. It was a happy event. Fun and educational. Drag is performance art. These events are not sexually suggestive in any way.”
A PLEA TO THE COMMISSIONERS
Speaking before the board of commissioners on Monday, Thomas C. Booher said allowing children to see drag performers is part of “an agenda to normalize this wicked behavior in the minds of children so that their resistance to it will be minimized, [and] that there will be more and more of it so that they will practice it themselves.”
He said his aim was to see all places that allow drag entertainment to be shut down and asked for an interim measure in the form of an ordinance that would treat drag shows as it might other forms of adult entertainment, such as a strip club. He also asked that those under the age of 18 be prohibited from attending any event without exception at such locations.
Following his father to the podium, Thomas F. Booher appealed to the commissioners’ sense of morality.
“For a city, for a society and for our county here, are we going to continue to permit these things going on in our time as if it’s perfectly healthy, perfectly normal and fine?” he asked.
Sanford Police Department officers responded to the most recent protest after a call from Knapp, and Booher expressed frustration when officers said there was no reason to believe a crime was being committed during the drag event. He also criticized his lack of authority to investigate what might have been happening during the story time in the absence of any signs of a person in immediate danger.
Youtube video of the confrontation showed one of the officers explaining to the pastor that any such regulation would have to be put in place by either the city or the state legislature.
Thomas F. Booher also made note of the presence of others who came to the protest wearing Confederate and neo-Nazi symbols and told the commissioners they were not part of his group. Matthews told the commissioners she spoke as a survivor of sexual abuse when she was a child.
Speaking of the children that she observed at the Yoga Center, Matthews said, “Innocence was lost as they entered the event, and it can never be recovered.”
North Carolina General Statutes (NCGS 14-202) set out what the legislature has defined as the rules under which adult entertainment establishments may operate, and even makes an attempt to define what “adult entertainment” actually is. The statutes also provides local government with wide latitude of their own, giving them the option to regulate “the location or operation of adult establishments or other sexually oriented businesses to the extent consistent with the constitutional protection afforded free speech.”
These types of regulations that go beyond what state law requires, particularly with respect to what is permitted in a particular place, are almost always adopted by cities and towns, and Lee County Commission Chairman Kirk Smith suggested to the Heritage Church group that they consider speaking during a similar public comment period during an upcoming Sanford City Council meeting.
The group was not in attendance at the council’s Oct. 15 session.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
While Thomas F. Booher told commissioners — and posted on Facebook — that he was not affiliated with the masked protesters who wore Confederate and neo-Nazi symbols, the scripture he quoted to begin the protest was cause for concern, according to Knapp.
Booher began with Matthew 18:6: If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea, a popular go-to verse in drag show protests across the country. An Oklahoma pastor was threatened with jail time in April after using the verse while making threats to a local LGBTQ+ group, and recently in North Carolina, a decorative millstone containing the verse was anonymously left in front of a bar in Carteret County that supports the LGBTQ+ community.
“Thomas Booher might distance himself from these groups, but he’s reading from the same playbook,” Knapp said. “We’ve received death threats before, and at least one of the people we got threats from was arrested and convicted for those threats.”
A controversial figure Booher has not distanced himself from is Robert Lewis Dabney, whose quote, “The education of children for God is the most important business done on earth,” appears on the banner of his personal Facebook page. Dabney was a 19th century theologian, Confederate Army chaplain and Southern Presbyterian pastor, in addition to biographer to Stonewall Jackson. Several conservative Presbyterian pastors today still value Dabney’s writings, much of which supported slavery and racist views toward Black people.
Dabney wrote “The Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes” in 1868, stating his public opposition to “clerical equality” and calling for the segregation of Presbyterian churches. In letters to the Richmond Enquirer in 1851, titled “The Moral Character of Slavery,” Dabney wrote, “We must remember that the real evil is the presence of three millions of half-civilized foreigners among us; and of this gigantic evil, domestic slavery is the potent and blessed cure.”
At the Oct. 15 protest, Booher suggested his church could extend an “olive branch” to the drag event’s organizers, but said, “Clearly, that is not something that you are looking for.”
“Is it not a great hope to know that we have been made in the image of God as male and female?” Booher said during the protest. “And that there’s assurance that I can flourish as a man, as a woman, rather than go in there and confuse children’s impressionable minds. To twist them into whatever it is that you wish to contort them into. It is Satanic, it is demonic, and it needs to be stopped. And you need to stop doing this and behaving in these wicked ways.”
Knapp said the LGBTQ+ community “strives for equal rights and acceptance” and called Booher’s “threats and accusations” baseless. She said the “playbook” is similar to strategies used to justify lynchings prior to the Civil Rights era and tactics used against the Jewish community prior to WWII.
“They’re clutching pearls and talking about being worried about children, but if we were doing that in any way, we’d be arrested and thrown in jail,” she said. “Let’s call it for what it is. They’re here to incite hate and violence.”
View the video: